Scientists vs. Science Fiction

Published 7 years ago by , Updated June 15th, 2008 at 11:36 am,

Robby and Morpheus p Scientists vs. Science FictionWhen it comes to science fiction, we enjoy the idea of what could be, and what might be vs. the hard core reality of the underlying science to our favorite shows and movies.

Some older movies hit on a subject matter that is touched upon in many a retelling, paying true homage to the genius that invented them. Some newer tales hit us with such obscure new angles on a story that the retelling of it would be a mere rip-off.

I’ve had interesting arguments with the scientist’s I work with about the science in our beloved Sci-Fi shows. I don’t think they’ve caught on , but I like tormenting them.. They do set themselves up for it.

It’s funny when they repeatedly badger my favorite shows for scientific flaws like there’s no sound in space? Duh.

I then point out that while “scientists” were trying to prove the earth was not flat, science fiction writers where putting men on the moon, even though it was an impossibility when they wrote those stories.

My favorite part of the debate is when I get into the definition of Science Fiction. (Sci: The state of knowing and Fi: Something invented by the imagination.) But when you query Merriam Webster for the term Science Fiction, it does not produce a definition. But Wikipedia says Science fiction is a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology.

Maybe I’ve sparked something in the science community (or not) but over on NewScientist, amongst the articles about ‘Rats that Feel Peer Pressure Too’ and ‘Why didn’t Earth freeze under faint young Sun?’ is an article on what 5 movies the science community thinks got the science right in the science fiction genre. Five? That’s it, just five?

They first note how Iron Man includes many real world technologies, (Or they’re fishing for internet hits) but then they go on to point out their obvious focus: “all too often Hollywood’s use of science involves shocking blunders: including spaceships making whooshing noises in Star Wars to the journey to the centre of the Earth in The Core.”

The movies they reference range from 1968 to 2004 and they warn us that their reviews may contain potential spoilers …. [crickets in the background] Gee, thanks for the warning before I watch my BetaMax version of the movie I taped off off the airwaves. (You see why I like tormenting scientists.. they are so fun sometimes.)

The five movies they say got it right are:
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Alien (1979)
Gattaca (1997)
Solaris (1972 and 2002)

With 2001: A Space Odyssey, they say that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s work is a realistic depiction of space travel when all the scenes outside the ship are in silence and the crew eats paste rather than solids and they loved how the crew members are shown dealing with the boredom of space travel.

They liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind because the selective memory erasure methodology depicted in the movie may not be impossible, quoting how different forms of dementia affect particular types of memory and so they approve of the premise.

They liked the use of suspended animation for long space trips in Alien because of the implausibility of faster-than-light travel. They also enjoyed the finer details of the aliens’ life cycle. But of course they still diss on the super fast life cycle of the adult and it’s acid blood.

Their appreciation of Gattaca stems from the grim vision of a society dominated by genetic prejudice and they still rag on the “job interview” at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation that consisted of DNA sampling of a urine sample because as they put it, our genetics can only give statistical predictions, not absolutes.

They liked Solaris because of how it portrays the limits of science and human understanding. They seem to appreciate Stanislaw Lem’s take on the fact that humans would not be able to understand the potential strangeness of extraterrestrial life.

I’m guessing the science community missed Barbarella. Again, we apologize for the spoilers .. Oi.

Sources: Merriam Webster, Wikipedia, New Scientist

Get our free email alerts on the topics and author of this article:


Post a Comment

GravatarWant to change your avatar?
Go to and upload your own (we'll wait)!

 Rules: No profanity or personal attacks.
 Use a valid email address or risk being banned from commenting.

If your comment doesn't show up immediately, it may have been flagged for moderation. Please try refreshing the page first, then drop us a note and we'll retrieve it. Keep in mind that we do not allow external links in the comments.

  1. Kiljoys.

    Anyway, I can deal with scientific implausibilities, as long as they’re not egregious and distracting. That’s going to vary depending on the viewer, but most people are pretty forgiving about most of that stuff – like the no-sound-in-space thing. It’s been a convention in space-based films for so long, it’s practically a tradition. Even one of the films they laud (Alien) breaks that rule.

  2. As long as they keep it in boundaries it’s ok. The no-sound-in-space thing would really make movies and series like Star Wars or Battlestar Gallactica damn boring. Even if you would fill that only with movie music and no effects. I don’t think that is that enjoyable.
    What I absolutley hate is when they set a movie or scene in the present and they use fake and impossible science. Like in Enemy of the State, they take a surveilance-camera image, and they turn around the person that they are viewing from the back. That is NOT possible and will never be. Enough exampkes can be found in CSI Miami too (that’s why I stopped watching…).
    But when they set it in a far future, like Alien or so, I can take a lot more. Just keep it reasonable.


  3. Yep.. a little bit of gray area isn’t a bad thing and yes, I can let a few things slide, depending on other angles in a show / movie, hence my source of antagonism to the brainiac types!! Tormenting scientists, it’s just not for breakfast anymore! It’s a fulfilling hobby..

  4. I’m sorry…I’m not going to be able to remember this story exactly.

    But this all reminds me a little of the scientists who would write to Gary Larson, complaining of these incidental details of his animal character’s misplaced habitat or some incidental inaccuracy of anatomical detail. He evidently laughed because they also never seem to mention or complain that he had drawn them wearing glasses or driving cars.

  5. Nice point KMAD. Science is like statistics. It can be applicable when and where one chooses to apply it because regardless of the fact beneath the process, it’s all colored by perspective or bias.

    Then again, I think my dog has gotten behind the wheel on occasion but I’ve never given her the keys!

  6. 790: LOL.. sorry about Solaris…

    I agree with you that the imagination of these writers bears predictability ahead of or in parallel to science development.. it’s freaky, and it’s cool. I mean heck, there have been developments in technology like “cloaking” devices! They’ve actually created a process to bend microwaves around objects, or cloaked them from microwaves So it’s begun!

    As far as AC Clarke goes, he was the rather smart guy who took his know how and put it down to paper..

    Albeit, he had degrees in math and physics and had written some non-fiction books on the premise of traveling in space.. so he had the background and insight on how to create a good sci-fi story and keep it grounded for whomever might have read his tales.

  7. Good thing were not all scientists. Some of my favorite films would suck.
    No sound in space? I remember hearing some classical music out there ???
    I’m surprised the scientific community accepts the fact that there were camera crews out in space recording all the action. Lol, Bruce, you just ruined Solaris for me :-)

    But seriously its the imagination of these sci-fi films that sparks creativity in the minds of scientists.
    Nasa/jpl, had a close relationship with Arthur C Clarke for years.
    His sci-fi imagination led to our advancements in the space program and future technologies. ;-).
    I’m kinda making a retroactive point. But hey.

  8. It’s not called science FICTION for nothing. SciFi writers take what is known and extrapolate on it. Of COURSE some artistic liberties are taken for entertainment purposes, but no one is claiming that scifi is what WILL happen. I know that the scientific community give Star Trek alot of cr*p, but who can deny that that show inspired many children to become astronauts or scientists? Scientists ARE studying matter teleporting and anti-matter…all ideas in Star Trek.

    My point: scientists need to lighten up! :P

  9. The thing these scientists seem to forget about much of their gripes is that things they can do today would have been considered unrealistic by scientists of earlier times.

    By keeping that in mind, I can excuse a lot of things in science fiction, if for no other reason than that it makes things easier on me when I’m writing. All I have to do is say to myself that it’s not possible YET. As long as it’s not been proven to be impossible, I can accept a lot.

    As for sound in space, I simply look at it as us hearing the sounds as they’re produced aboard the ship in question, as if the ship’s systems weren’t likely insulated for the comfort of the crew.

  10. Lol Bruce yeah I was just kidding about Solaris. I saw the original 3 hour russian version years ago. I liked it as much as everyones diggin Speed Racer this weekend. Yeah right…;-(

    Bending light waves. Yeah Bruce that was the premise of the Philidelphia expriment.
    They were trying to make a ship dissapear from radar and the Tesla coils were so powerfull the ship phased out of our dimension. That test was done in the 40′s so imagine what they can do now. The things I’ve heard Bruce well you just wouldn’t believe it.

    AC Clarke was contracted to come up with concepts for space travel for Nasa and was responsable for all the space ships and tech in 2001 a Space Oddyessy…. He also played a role in designing the space shuttle.
    If I recall the Obolisk in 2001 was refered to as the Vonomin Probe. (I’m sure I mispelled his name). The probe is a theoretical acessment of how alien life might explore space.
    Vonomin* stated that advanced alien races wouldn’t travel space looking for life. Instead they would send out probes. Probes that would become active when the species of life was advanced enough to find them.
    The Probe / Obolisk in the film 2001 was symbolic of mankind advancing from primate barbarism to exploring the moon.
    Because life constantly advances the probe led mankind to where it came from. In the film it happened to be Titan , one of the moons orbiting Jupiter.

    Is it obvious that work is slow right now or what the f?

  11. Teleportation has allready been done in the lab.

    Stargates are also rumoured to be real. I’m sure the things at Area 51 would blow your mind.

  12. I’d just like to see a research program develop for Bistro-mathics and for someone to discover the location for a population of Babelfish. (Adams created some of my personal favorite SciFi)

  13. Long ago I found this site and it’s one of my faves:

    It analyzes movie scenes from the POV of real world physics. It’s pretty fun to read.

    I don’t mind SOME bending of the rules or speculation, but some stuff is so out there that it’s plain stupid. Anyone remember that Disney sci fi flick “The Black Hole” where towards the end they were walking outside the ship exposed to the vacuum of space without space suits? Awesome, dude. :-)


  14. the intuitor (Tom Rogers)
    also wrote a book called Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics.
    Fun read!

  15. In space no one can hear you scream.

    They can hear your ship blow up, but not the screaming. ;)

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  16. Yeah I agree there’s gotta be some kind of space fart noise.
    Even in a Vacuum for a brief moment. :-p

  17. Has anyone read “The Physics of Star Trek” by Lawrence Krauss? It’ll make you wonder – did science influence Star Trek, or did Star Trek influence the trajectory of science and technology?

    Granted, sci-fi movies have scientific inaccuracies, but that’s just to spice things up or to make a scene more interesting.

    If scientists had their way, they’d think that the discovery of the Top Quark is something movie-worthy, or that a semi-fiction novel about the race to find the Higgs Boson to be a fine piece of edge-of-the-seat writing. Yawwwnn..

    Star Trek came up with “warp drives” and it influenced physicists to take such concepts seriously. Star Trek came up with the idea of the “photon maser” (i.e. PHASER, which was later renamed to Phased Energy Rectification just to make it sound closer to “hard science”) which became well-known, while Teddy Maiman could hardly make “Laser” a household word. Perhaps the phaser influenced scientists to explore the weapons potential of masers and lasers..

    Is Knight Rider (the original one) considered sci-fi? If you look at the world today, many vehicular developments seem to be influenced by Knight Rider.. radar-guided self-braking cars, blindspot sensors that tell active steering systems to avoid obstacles at the sides.. GPS systems.. infra-red night vision to assist lowlight driving.. the list goes on.

    But back in 1983, magazines that feature articles on Knight Rider included technical articles with interviews with scientists and engineers. Their answers were unanimous: Knight Rider is beyond the realm of technical realism. It’ll have to be as big as a truck to house the supercomputer, rely on jet engines for propulsion, have a voice syntheseizer unit the size of an electric oven, etc. etc.

  18. Jae, Great points. Especially about “Knight Rider needing to be as big as a truck to house the supercomputer… etc. etc.”

    It reminded me of an interesting piece of hardware: The 305 RAMAC, the first 5 Mbyte hard drive, more or less. It was the size of 2 refrigerators and weighed ONE TON.

    That would suck in my laptop.

  19. Jae, yeah I read that – great book. I think Trek TOTALLY influenced the direction of science.


  20. Great topic, Vic! :)

    Another (older) film who got it right is the Czech production IKARIE XB1 ( The American edited version turned this one obviously into some kind of travesty (check out the rather idiotic reviews on the imdb), BUT this one is a real gem in the original Czech version!

    Glen Erickson (aka “DVD-Savant”) reviewed this one over here:

    So instead of participating in the discussion, I’m offering some weird links to a long forgotten foreign movie. How typical of me! ;)


  21. I remember seeing some report ages ago, maybe 15 to 20 years ago, showing how the medical community had picked up the ‘air injection’ technique that Dr. McCoy was always using for giving his patients shots.

    And who hasn’t been reminded of the ST_TOS communication devices when they see someone talking at a cell phone (especially people that used to use those Nextel things)?

    How close are we now to Picard’s touching the Star Fleet logo pinned to his shirt to communicate like we do now with Blue Tooth?

  22. i wonder though if man will really be able to accomplish all of these futuristic visions without ‘enhancing’ themselves? Intellectually that is…

  23. Not sure JJ, right now all the futuristic high tech is in the hands of the military……